THE CART RUTS
Among the large number of archaeological and prehistoric sites all over Malta and Gozo, none remain more mysterious than the fifty or so conglomerations of cart ruts, that total some 200 pairs. Each pair run in parallel channels for a certain length and then disappear, often without an explainable reason.
Locations of the cart ruts
Cart ruts seem to be everywhere and in all kinds of environments, such as on hilly terrain, on rocky plateaux, on cliff edges and sometimes by the sea. The best known and most extensive ones are those located near Għar il-Kbir, not far away from Buskett woods. Others which are also of considerable length are the ruts located beyond Naxxar, on the side of a steep downhill road known as T’Alla u Ommu. Cart ruts keep being discovered from time to time, especially during infrastructural road works. Such is the case with the ruts discovered a dozen years or so ago, near Mater Dei Hospital and those discovered more recently at Attard during major works on the road that leads to Rabat. Gozo is also not lacking as there are at least ten different places, such as at Ta’ Ċenċ and at Dwejra.
Among the most curious cart ruts known are a stunted pair located on the rocky shore in St. George’s Bay, just prior to entering Birżebbuġa. These ruts slide into the sea after several metres, but once stretched for a 50 metre distance towards the left hand side of the small sandy beach. The archaeologist David Trump recalls that they used to emerge on the rocky shore, close to where the seaside residences are. This means that at the time that they were cut out these ruts were situated well above the sea level, but since their inception the sea level must have risen considerably to obliterate them almost completely. This is further confirmed by the presence of six pits, some 40 metres to the right on the same rocky shore, that are believed to be related to the same cart ruts. These pits might have once been used as silos to store grain. Both silo pits and cart ruts needed to be well above the water line to be of any use.
Why ruts and not tracks?
There are many views as to what purpose cart ruts were used for. Scholars have so far not reached any definite consensus. However, all agree that these cart ruts were specially dug to facilitate the transportation of some bulky object on a cart or sled, over grounds that were not always easy to traverse. The digging of ruts was very probably carried out with metal tools such as bronze or iron, a daunting task that is proof to their importance. The material transported may have simply been crops just harvested that needed to be transferred to the farmer’s hearth. The load might have consisted of large quantities of soil that farmers sometimes needed to transfer from one area to another to create new arable land, a practice which continues to this day. It is also possible that a large quantity of stones was carried on carts to build rubble walls that would enclose the small terraced fields so as to prevent soil being swept downhill during heavy rainfalls. It is believed that the stones may have been cut at nearby quarries that were in use not too far away from where the farmer toiled the land.
Many believe that the material was loaded on a cart that was driven by a mule, an ox or some other draught animal. Only, it is believed by many, that the carts did not have wheels. This theory is based on the premise (also proven) that wheels would have simply got stuck inside the V or U shaped grooves that often characterise the bottom of the ruts. Others believe that the carts were driven by domesticated animals that simply dragged carts that were more like sleds, behind them. The sleds were held together by two long poles that trailed along the shafts of the linear ruts. Otherwise, it could also be that the sled may have been tugged along by the farmers themselves – perhaps more than one, using ropes to shift the necessary material and bring it to its destined depository.
How old are the cart ruts?
The age of the cart ruts is likewise still a mystery that awaits unravelling. Experts think that they may have been in use throughout the Late Bronze Age (1800-700 BC), although some maintain that they could have been made later, say, in Punic times, roughly, from the 7th century to 3rd century BC; or even as late as Roman times – after 218 BC. Many hold on to the first date bracket, because it is not the first time that the ruts happen to run right across Punic graves hewn out in their path. In such instances, this means that the ruts were certainly made before the grave was dug. Otherwise, who would design ruts that would run up to and be obstructed by a tomb-shaft that already exists? Unfortunately, due to their nature, the cart ruts, when explored, have always been found devoid of ancient objects such as tiny bits of the cart itself or of any organic objects that might have been accidentally deposited there. Such remains would go a long way to help identify the age and raison d’etre of the ruts. David Trump confirms that in some cases the ruts are very close to Bronze Age sites. Such is the case with the ruts that lead up to Borg in Nadur, il-Qala Ta’ San Martin and the Ġebel Ciantar Bronze age site, a promontory not far from Dingli cliffs .
The length and width of cart ruts
The ruts vary in length and width. There are ruts that appear for a few meters and then disappear into nowhere, others keep pursuing the same path for up to more than 100 meters, sometimes even reaching 300 meters. The space between the inside of the parallel lines, as measured from the centre of each rut averages some 140 cm. (Such measuring will also indicate the average width of the cart itself and its supporting pair of sled poles that were dragged along. The depth of the grooves varies even in the same parallel set of ruts, some a mere couple of centimeters, while others have a depth that reaches a glorious 30 and even 60 cm. These measures vary constantly between cart ruts in the same conglomerate as well as distinct from those of other sites. There exist also ruts that move in a straight line and then curve sideways after some distance.
The reason for variation of the depth of the ruts may be due to the nature of the ground elevation, the soil covering them as well as the type of object being driven. If the sled was made of iron, the weight of the sled and its sharp, pointed edges could easily have dug the ruts deeper by the repeated treading carried out in each pair. Apart from that, once the ruts had been dug out they might have well served, involuntarily or otherwise, to channel rain water thus becoming even more eroded by the running water.
The largest network of cart ruts is found between Buskett and Għar il-Kbir. Here, not only are the cart ruts the most extensive but they often intersect one another like a large wire mesh, making them comparable to a train station. Hence the nickname Clapham Junction, a reference to a train station in London. This network of cart ruts might indicate that they were meant to serve as one big transportation network for a sizeable community living or working some short distance away. It is tantalising to imagine whether this was a community that chose to live inside Ghar il-Kbir close by? We know that up to 1836, there were still as many as 120 people living in this cave and other smaller ones in the vicinity. It might otherwise be possible that this set of cart ruts grew in number over several generations. Were this to be the case, one might assume that the cart ruts were planned each in a specific direction according to each different depository or material source.
Apart from the fact that the presence of so many cart ruts provides us with information on the industrial activities of these people, whoever they were, their mere presence also helps us to chart a map of likely habitation centres that existed in their time, where extended families and communities resided. The present map of known cart ruts seems to show locations that are at some distance from the then major urban areas, such as Rabat, Mdina, the harbour towns and Rabat in Gozo. This thought however, provokes another possibility. Could dozens if not hundreds of more cart ruts have existed inside or close by to the more ancient urban areas of Malta? Could it be that such cart ruts were obliterated over time by the same urban sprawl that extended even further out than their original habitation core?
Below is a list of cart-ruts. The names of the location have been listed according to their proximity to the nearest town, village or known site name. (Of course there must be others which are unbeknown to me). Should you know of other locations I would be very pleased were you to drop such names so as to add them to the list.
Attard (Triq l-Imdina / close to Wied Incita nursery)
Baħrija (centre) x 2
Birkirkara (Mater Dei / close to Emergency Ward)
Birżebbuġa, (l/o): On rocky shore at St George’s Bay - Borġ in-Nadur - close to Għar Dalam Museum.
Dingli: Close to Għar il-Kbir - Irdum / Close to the Maddalena Chapel - Ġebel Ciantar promontory
Mġarr: Żebbiegħ - Ta’ Sejkla -Xagħra tat-Tombu - Binġemma (220 m.'l bogħod
mill-kappella tal-Ittrija) -Ta’ Garibaldi -Ta’ Mrejnu / il-Palma -Tal-Faċċol- Dar il-Ħamra -Tal-Qanfud - Xagħriet ta’ Fraxku - Tar-Ragħad - Ta’ Darrenzi (thanks to info by Darren Azzopardi)
Mosta: Misraħ Għonoq, between Wied il-Għasel and Mosta Fort.
Naxxar: Targa Gap / T’Alla u Ommu.
Pembroke (White Rocks)
Rabat, (l/o): Mtaħleb - Għar Żerriegħa / Għar Żerrieq Miġra l-Ferħa
- Fomm ir-Riħ / Qala tal-Pellegrin - Ta’ Baldu) - Xagħra tal-Qallelija
Salina: direction of tal-Qadi.
San Ġwann: Vicinity of Mensija.
San Ġiljan: San Ġorġ.
Xemxija: on hilltop.
San Lawrenz: Dwejra
Sannat: Rdum Ta’ Ċenċ
Qala: Ras/ Rdum il-Qala
Xewkija: South and East of village.
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For a list of other articles and publications in Maltese and English by same author please click here: https://kliemustorja.com/informazzjoni-dwar-pubblikazzjonijiet-ohra-tal-istess-awtur/
Azzopardi Jeremy, ‘Raddi – Cart Ruts’, https://mgarrlc.com/sites/historic-remains/raddi-cart-ruts/
Evans J.D. The Prehistoric Antiquities of the Maltese Islands: A Survey. University of London, The Athlone Press. 1971.
Groucutt Huw S., ‘The morphological variability of the cart ruts and its implications’, Journal of Archaeological Science, Vol 41, February 2022.
Parker Rowland & Rubinstein Michael, The Cart-Ruts on Malta and Gozo. Gozo Press, 1984.
Trump D. H., Malta An Archaeological Guide.Faber & Faber Ltd. 1972.
Trump David, Malta – Prehistory and Temples. Midsea Books Ltd. 2002.
Ventura Frank u Tanti Tony , ‘The Cart Tracks at San Pawl Tat-Targa, Naxxar’, Melita Historica, Vol XI, no 3, 1994, Malta Historical Society, pp. 219-240.